I'm OK, You're My Parents: How to Overcome Guilt, Let Go of Anger, and Create a Relationship That Worksby Dale Atkins, Nancy Hass
A guilt-free guide for adults seeking more satisfying relationships with their parents
In a recent study, half of all Americans rated their relationship with at least one parent as either "poor" or "terrible," and more than a third felt this way about both parents. As life expectancy continues to rise and the parent-child relationship extends further/p>/b>
A guilt-free guide for adults seeking more satisfying relationships with their parents
In a recent study, half of all Americans rated their relationship with at least one parent as either "poor" or "terrible," and more than a third felt this way about both parents. As life expectancy continues to rise and the parent-child relationship extends further into adulthood, this problem is becoming more prevalent than ever. Now, psychologist Dale Atkins presents a step-by-step plan for adults trying to come to terms with parents who are only human--before it is too late.
In I'm OK, You're My Parents, Atkins applies the same intelligent, no-nonsense approach that's made her a frequent guest on top-rated TV shows. She urges a restructuring of the relationships between adults and their aging parents and gives practical, specific advice on how to exorcise the demons of anger and resentment, untangle financial arrangements that cause stress and feelings of powerlessness, set limits on your parents' demands for time and attention, turn a spouse or friends into a powerful resource, overcome your own resistance to change, and discover the redemptive power of humor.
This book draws on Atkins' twenty-five years of experience as a relationship expert to present a comprehensive guide to repairing difficult relationships, gaining control, and building a life that you and your parents can live with for years to come.
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I'm Ok, You're My Parents
How to Overcome Guilt, Let Go of Anger, and Create a Relationship that Works
By Dale Atkins
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2004 Dale Atkins and Nancy Hass
All rights reserved.
Making Sure Your Past Doesn't Last
Maybe it won't be so bad, Zach thought. Maybe I can stick him in my office for the week and do my writing in the bedroom. When he starts driving me crazy I can just go for a long walk. Or pop a Xanax....
Damn. It will be bad. Maybe I should stay with Ben for the week. His place is small, but I could put an air mattress in his dining area. Or Kara. She's got a spare room. No, that's crazy — she's still mad at me. ... Oh, geez, I forgot about dinner Friday night with Leona and Karl! What if he wants to come along, like he always does? God, why does he do this to me?
Hey, what am I talking about? Geez, I'm such a lousy son. My dad really doesn't ask for very much. Why can't I just hold my nose and smile when he comes to stay with me?
* * *
"You go through this every time," Kara said with an exasperated tone when Zach, a thirty-four-year-old writer, called her for advice on how to handle the chilling news that his divorced father was planning yet another trip to town and wanted to stay with Zach in his small apartment. "Why don't you just tell him to get a hotel room?" Kara said. "Would you let anyone else push you around like that?"
Ben wasn't particularly sympathetic either. "Just suck it up, pal. Let him bunk in your office, 'yes' him to death, and tune him out. It'll be over in a week. What's the big deal?"
Both alternatives put Zach in a cold sweat. His father, Ed, had always been a sweet, depressed, needy guy, which had bugged Zach throughout his childhood and made him feel more like the parent than the kid. But things got out of hand after Zach's frosty, get-up-and-go mother got up and left Ed for a wealthy entrepreneur a couple of years ago. Now his father wanted to pal around with Zach all the time — and without fail, he'd get drunk and weepy, telling Zach that his broken heart would never mend.
Every time his father stayed with him, Zach flashed back to when he was twelve and realized that his mother was cheating on his dad. He still cringes at the memory of his father weeping on the basement steps, and even today, twenty-two years later, anger toward his mother swells up. That's probably why Zach just can't bring himself to tell his dad to back off. On the other hand, Zach thinks, why should he have to tell his father to back off? Can't the old man see that his son is having problems, too, struggling to make it as a writer, struggling to maintain a decent romantic relationship himself?
"Why is it so hard to say no to him?" Zach asked me the day before his father arrived. (Zach had decided, with trepidation, to give his dad the bedroom and sleep on an air mattress in his cramped office.) Why couldn't he be more like Kara, who had simply cut her demanding mother out of her life, or like Ben, who didn't seem to give a second thought to his folks, a nice, wealthy couple who sent him monthly checks and demanded only a visit at Christmas?
"Is it because I had a crazy childhood?" Zach said. "Kara says I'm so conflicted because my parents abused me. Is that why I can't say no, and yet when I say yes I wind up wanting to punch him? Am I feeling this way because I'm burying what happened when I was a kid — or because I'm dwelling on it too much?"
* * *
It's a question I hear over and over: How important is the past? Should I blame? Forgive? Repress? Scream and yell? Just get over it?
Compounding the confusion are all the conflicting messages out there: an endless loop of afternoon talk shows with victims of family trauma regaling viewers with horror stories, religious leaders preaching forgiveness, therapists urging us to dredge up long-buried pain, motivational speakers hectoring us to stop whining and "start winning."
Our relationship with our parents is the "original" relationship of our lives, the template for all other connections. It plays itself out in our romances, in our friendships, and in the way we deal with our own children. It's the cradle in which our concept of intimacy was born — the need for approval, the nagging sense that we're being either smothered or rejected, the fear that we are, at some basic level, not really loved ... or clutched too tightly to breathe. No wonder it's so hard to figure out how much weight to give the past when we're trying to figure out how to deal with our parents today.
We interact with our parents vividly (sometimes too vividly) in the present, but every moment we spend with them — every weird phone call, every tense holiday, every blood-boiling argument — bears whispers and shadows from the past. Like Jacob Marley, chains rattling as he walks through the chilly rooms of A Christmas Carol, we can't escape them.
My stand on the how to view your past can best be summed up in a quote from Alfred North Whitehead, the Harvard mathematician and philosopher: "The only use of a knowledge of the past is to equip us for the present. The present contains all that there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past, and it is the future."
I don't underestimate the power of the past. Remembering and understanding your childhood can be important on many levels, from making sense of the problems in your love life to gaining insight into why you are having conflicts on the job. Using a therapist to question long-held beliefs, investigate memories, and search for patterns can be a mind-expanding experience, and intense investigation of the past may be imperative if you are unable to function because of childhood trauma — physical, sexual, or psychological abuse.
But what about the rest of us, those of us who are unhappy with our relationship with our parents and want to change it now? Are we all, as some experts suggest, "victims" of childhood parental "abuse" and therefore required to embark on a lengthy course of psychotherapy to ruminate endlessly about it? Is all the tension we feel regarding our parents the result of a childhood robbed of love and unconditional support, as we've been led to believe? Must we delve deep into our psyches, strip bare our soul, before we can even contemplate change?
Absolutely not. The radical notion underlying this book is that you can change your relationship with your parents now, WHILE you are learning to understand your past.
I am not saying that there is no connection between your childhood and why you now feel guilty, angry, or powerless when dealing with your parents. There probably is. In fact, in later sections of this book we will discuss some patterns you and your parents may have established in your childhood and how these have an impact on your relationship with your parents today.
What I am saying is this: if you want change, all you need is a basic grasp of how your childhood may have laid the groundwork for the bad patterns you are stuck in with your parents today. You already possess the inner resources to change your behavior, and theirs.
The best way to make real progress is to carefully evaluate your childhood with an eye to discovering solutions for dealing with your parents today. That's how you avoid the trap, which many people fall into, of feeling used, abused, and wounded by their childhood memories. Note that both reflection and action are required. The more you learn about the past — provided you do it in a way that is forward-looking and solution-oriented — the easier it will be for you to make changes.
I compare the process to losing those fifteen pounds you know are endangering your health. Understanding the childhood dynamics that contributed to your overeating (never feeling like you could measure up to your supersvelte mom, inheriting your dad's chubby physique, being raised in a family where lasagna substituted for love) can be helpful, but it's not necessary to understand them before you start losing weight, before you start changing your relationship to food.
ALL PAIN HURTS, BUT NOT ALL PAIN IS ABUSE
The simple fact is that most of us did not have a pathologically dangerous childhood, weren't sexually or physically abused by our parents. You may have endured heavy emotional blackmail or selfish or immature parenting — I am not underestimating the pain that stems from that — but despite how it may seem from reading magazines or watching made-for-TV movies, the percentage of people who are victims of true parental terror is fairly small.
It's important to make this distinction because it is not healthy to see yourself as a victim. That term is wildly overused. Frankly, I'm not too crazy about how often dysfuctional is tossed around either, nor the profligate use of abuse. Or codependent or survivor or any of those jargony labels. In this book, I'm going to avoid labels, even the ones used by well-meaning therapists who have written about dealing with parents by putting them in categories like smotherers, martyrs, or controllers.
Victim terminology came into common usage in the 1980s, when therapists and self-help gurus — unduly swayed by new, taboo-busting press reports of incest and sexual predation of children by some adults — adapted the highly charged language of these crimes to help clients cope with parental issues. These therapists were convinced that the depression, anxiety, and guilt of their clients stemmed from the repression of childhood "abuse" of all kinds. Such labels seemed to make their clients feel more comfortable and less isolated — like instant heroes with a ready-made support group. The labels spread like wildfire.
I believe strongly that these terms have been too loosely applied, to the point where they now encompass almost every sort of bad parenting. Victim terminology is dangerous because:
It defines us as "damaged" and imposes a feeling of helplessness that is hard to shake.
It devalues the experience of people who have been the victims of serious parental abuse, which I define as relentless, systematic harm of a psychological, sexual, or physically violent nature.
Don't be so eager to cast yourself in the victim's role. In deciding to wrestle with your relationship with your parents, you are embarking on a program that will require an enormous amount of courage, self-confidence, and optimism. Dwelling on the image of yourself as a victim will only make it harder for you to muster the tools you'll need to change your behavior toward them, and their behavior toward you. Viewing yourself as a victim may comfort you in the short term, but it will trap you in a powerless and childlike state that will rob you of a much-needed sense of strength. And at those moments when you feel like quitting — and believe me, it will happen along the way — you will find it too easy to slip into "blame" and "victim" mode.
The True Horror: Realizing That Your Parents Are Human
Seeing yourself as a victim can stop you from seeing your parents as fully realized human beings, a crucial step in improving your relationship with them. You must accept the fact that your parents are entangled in their own internal struggles and that those struggles may have been acted out on you in the form of manipulation, suppression and control, and even, at times, loving behavior. Once you understand this point, you can no longer simply define your parents in terms of what they "did" to you. That is, ironically, much more difficult than dismissing them as fireballs of destruction. But it is a step you must take.
HOW MUCH TALKING IS TOO MUCH?
Therapy has been called "the talking cure," and it is a valuable tool for self-awareness. But in recent years, more and more therapists have realized that endlessly rehashing childhood wounds can be counterproductive. Sigmund Freud believed that the "magic bullet" was uncovering repressed early childhood trauma, but in many cases that's not enough to effect real change. Repressing the past is not healthy — but neither is dwelling on it. Concentrating on action is the best way to jump-start real change. Making even small strides in the way you deal with your parents will give you the strength and sense of accomplishment necessary to confront the past on your own terms, on your own schedule. And that, in turn, will make you even more comfortable about confronting the challenges that will arise as your long life with your folks plays out.
SO, WHAT REALLY MATTERS ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD?
You don't need to have a full-blown, connect-the-dots understanding of your childhood dynamic to start changing your approach to your parents. But it is necessary to have a basic understanding of the "narrative" of your early life. With all our exposure to television, therapy, and self-help literature, most of us have some inkling of what made our family and parental interactions unique, but you may not have a mapped-out "narrative." Or you may have one that is too cluttered with psychobabble and victim labels. So start fresh with the lists at the end of this chapter.
In therapy, recollections of your childhood are explored at length to sort out reality from fantasy, and to illuminate entreched patterns of behavior — but it's not what we're doing here. Instead, we're simply trying to arm you with a concise, nondramatic synopsis of the most pivotal experiences of your childhood. We're doing this not as an exercise in catharsis or a way for you to "get in touch with your feelings," but as a diagnostic tool to help you identify which issues will likely crop up when you are trying to fix your relationship with your parents (Do keep in mind, however, that not all problems vis-à-vis your folks are "old" problems; some, like issues stemming from their aging or their hostility toward your spouse, may be relatively new.)
WE ARE FAMILY
If you're having trouble dealing with your parents, your childhood story likely involves sadness or anger. But be aware that the story may involve your entire family, not just you and your parents. You didn't grow up in a vacuum. Your parents' relationship to each other might have set the tone for your childhood, and you may have had siblings who further complicated the situation. This is the focus of what's called "Family Systems," an approach to therapy created by Dr. Murray Bowen. "Getting beyond blame," Dr. Bowen and his collaborator Dr. Michael Kerr once wrote, "does not mean exonerating people from the part they play or played in the creation of a problem. It means seeing the total picture, acquiring a balanced view — not feeling compelled to either approve or disapprove of the nature of one's own family."
Your past was also shaped by outside events: deaths, bankruptcies, job losses, accidents. Don't forget to weigh those events when you reflect on your past, because they can permanently disfigure families and deeply affect the way your parents relate to you.
The following exercises should help you understand how issues from your childhood are affecting your life today. When you are finished with them, you will need to keep this information handy — perhaps not emblazoned on your chest, but in your metaphoric back pocket — so that you will recognize your "hot buttons" when they are pushed.
1) TAKE INVENTORY OF CHILDHOOD ISSUES AND THEIR EFFECT ON YOU
Write down the three most traumatic family-related events of your childhood. A few examples: divorce, substance abuse (of any family member — including yourself), a grandparent living with you, or frequent moves.
Now write down the top three things you still feel quilty about from your childhood — regardless of whether you think they were your fault. Omit this step if there's nothing you feel guilty about.
Finally, list the top three things that still get you angry at your parents when you reflect back.
2) WRITE YOUR STORY
Write a concise paragraph or two in the least judgmental language possible to convey the flavor of your childhood, your family, and your relationship with your parents. It may help to write in the voice of an alien who — unbeknown to you or your parents — lived invisibly in your childhood home and now must report back to the high commander. Remember to consider your family dynamic as a whole as well as putting the spotlight on the relationship between you and your parents. Be descriptive and honest, including the good and the bad.
Excerpted from I'm Ok, You're My Parents by Dale Atkins. Copyright © 2004 Dale Atkins and Nancy Hass. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Dale Atkins, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and media commentator who appears regularly on the Today Show. The author of five books, she has contributed to such national magazines as Ladies' Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, and Parents. She lives in Westport, Connecticut.
Dale Atkins, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and media commentator who appears regularly on the Today Show. The author of five books, she has contributed to such national magazines as Ladies’ Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, and Parents. She lives in Westport, Connecticut.
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